5 Things Companies Do That Ruin Storytelling Success

November 9th, 2015

5 Things Companies Do That Ruin Storytelling Success

I am optimistic about the next phase of storytelling bringing the industry to a better place—although I do have a bone to pick with how some organizations knowingly (or unwittingly) get in their own way. Here are five things companies do that can impede storytelling success.

Don’t make me turn this storytelling van around, kids!

1. The Complexity Conundrum

I see this too often, especially in industries that have lots of jargon, such as high-tech, financial services, medical, pharmaceutical, etc. Some corporate storytellers think that a good story has to be layered with stuff—because a simple one is just too simple to be effective, right? So they add more bells and whistles to pimp out their story ride so as not to “dumb it down!” Ackkkk!

It’s hard to watch when companies are so close to a beautiful story, and then this happens! Complexities like jargon kill clarity, and clarity is the storyteller’s burden, not the audience’s. When I’ve said we need to keep things simple, I sometimes am met with the, “Why would we dumb it down?” response. Simplicity is about accessibility of message, and it is not the same as “dumbing down.” 

Secondly, that phrase is patronizing to your audience. “Simple” allows your audience to champion your story. Complexity works against that. Your audience is smart—they just shouldn’t have to work that hard to understand your story. That is your problem.

Moreover, jargon-monoxide poisoning—as I’m known in the industry for calling it—is a big signal to me that a company does not have a clear story, or else they’d be proudly singing it from the Swiss Alps like in The Sound of Music. (Note: I like romanticized analogies.)

Complexity gets in the way of the emotional resonance of a great story. Without emotional arcs, no one cares about your story. I’d say your mom will, but I’d be lying to you—just like your mom sometimes does!

2. The Superhuman Fallacy

Too many companies have bought into a myth that great stories should make them look like “superhumans.” So, they take a great simple story that works and turn it into a freak on story steroids in a quest to make their story more “awesome.”

Your story shouldn’t sound like it came out of Forrest Gump. “Superhuman” isn’t real. What’s real? Being human, and telling the truth without too much exaggeration. Too often, storytellers believe that the truth isn’t enough and that their stories, by extension, are too ordinary to be meaningful.

I disagree. Of course you can take some poetic license, but there is a difference between a little story botox and going way overboard so that there is little truth left. The latter is a terrible disservice to the organization and to audiences. A great, honest story doesn’t need story steroids, or “storoids.” (Stand back, all—I have a comedic habit of Kathy-isms!)

The truth wins every time. It’s human. Sometimes organizations don’t want to reveal the truth because it makes them look “vulnerable.” Well, all vulnerability should have context. And if vulnerability is relevant and makes a company more transparent and honest, do it. For more info on being vulnerable, I’ve got some resources for you. I also just did a Hangout on this same topic with a great guest.

3. Fear of Risk

A great story has risk—a risk to the storyteller, a risk in the story that has to be resolved for the audience, and risk that the story might not work. Over-sanitized stories, like stories by committee, often become crappy stories.

Sometimes organizations fear talking about challenges they face; they fear being vulnerable, as I mentioned. Yet, stories without challenges are not stories at all. Challenges create tension and risk that have to be resolved for the audience—that’s part of great storytelling and taking your audience on an emotional journey.

Your audience feels risk—there is no getting around it. Storytelling is how you acknowledge it and show your audience how to resolve it.  Today, companies need to be more afraid of not risking anything. Now that’s scary.

4. The Perfect Ending

A story that ends with an economic benefit makes a really crappy ending. Simply telling your audience that your product will help them save or make money or time—concentrating on a rational, economic benefit—is a really shallow ending. “So what?” I say. And so do a lot of your users. Shallow is emotionally unsatisfying.

What users really want to know is how their personal lives will change. They want hope that they will be better. What will money allow them to do to achieve community, fulfillment, credibility, recognition, and all the things that human beings want?

Your audience has human needs that have nothing to do with your product or service, and those needs go beyond rational, economic value. It’s your job to find what they are and tell stories that speak emotionally to those needs. Did your product help them reach their personal goals? It’s never about your product, ever.

It’s even OK to have a story ending that is open-ended, still evolving, and that leans towards hope. You can also have a business story that invites your audience to co-create an ending for themselves by sharing their stories. A great ending isn’t perfect, just better. And realistic.

5. Hiding Behind a Corporate Veil

The “Corporate Veil” is coming down in favor of a human frame. Part of the reason many brand stories fail to capture the imagination of audiences is because they are still oriented around companies as protagonists.

Companies can’t be. People don’t care about companies. They care about people. You can’t hug or thank a company; although many of us would like to smack companies!

That means great storytelling should be told through the lens of a person: a specific customer, a passionate employee, a dedicated partner. That’s what connects with people: stories of other people who are like them in some way or share similar values, situations, or challenges. Every great company story must be anchored in a human story, and that can only happen when a story is told through a personal human lens.

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